Twenty-five years ago I was a senior associate at a public relations firm in San Francisco. My clients covered a wide range of industries – high technology, recruiting, food. None of them had anything to do with my real passion: tennis.
But during my decade in the PR agency business, I maintained a pinky in the sport, writing freelance articles, stories mostly focused on the two professional tournaments that then regularly came to the Bay Area. In early 1992, though, my wife, Joan, suggested we take a trip to the tournament at Indian Wells.
“How will you deal with the sun?” I asked her.
The mitigating factor here was that Joan had lupus, a chronic illness wherein the immune system can attack healthy cells and tissues – flares that can be triggered by exposure to the sun’s UV rays. One of the books about lupus was titled, The Sun is My Enemy. Going outside required Joan to be cloaked in the manner of an actress seeking anonymity.
“It’ll be fine,” she said. “There’s a hotel across the street from the tournament. You’ll walk there and I can drive around to look at the scenery and go to the shopping centers. At night I’ll be safe and we can walk around.”
Off we went. I’d rustled up three assignments – profiles of legends Pancho Gonzalez, John Newcombe and Billie Jean King. I was also a decade into gathering material for an intended book about Jimmy Connors. The tournament would be a good place not just to see him in action, but also to learn more from the likes of Connors’ ex-coach, Pancho Segura, as well as such peers as Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase, each on-hand for a senior tournament.
Within 24 hours of our arrival, I’d interviewed Newcombe, hit balls with one of his fellow Aussies (Roy Emerson), interviewed King rival Chris Evert, and witnessed a Connors practice session. The next morning came breakfast with Gonzalez, an interview with guru Vic Braden and time with Segura. A day after that, a long interview with tournament director Charlie Pasarell and at least an attempt to talk with the mercurial Nastase. Added to this were tons of matches, practice sessions and enough schmoozing to make you think I was attending a trade show (which, in a way, all tennis tournaments are).
By night, I’d tell Joan about everything; most of all, how joyful it was to be in thick of a world I so enjoyed. At the time, we were each reading a series of books written by Anne Rice that have come to be known as The Vampire Chronicles. Since, like vampires, Joan had to be extremely careful around sunlight, she felt a special affinity with these nocturnal folk. Rice’s first installment, titled Interview with the Vampire, opens with an ambitious journalist, also based in San Francisco, asking the guarded and potentially lethal protagonist if he’d be willing to tell him his life story – the same goal I had with the combustible Connors.
“A biographer is like a vampire,” said Joan. “You sink your teeth into your subject’s neck, suck out the blood, and then when you write your story you think you can live forever.”
She was right. It was happening. That was the week I saw that there was a chance I could indeed write more extensively about the tennis, that with enough persistence and skill and a ton of thank you notes and story ideas, I could eventually will myself into this sport I’d loved since I was 12 years old. I didn’t know it then, but within 18 months of that trip, I’d become a fulltime freelance writer. Rapidly, I got to know more editors, hunted down players and coaches; and of course, savored the taste of blood.
But live forever? Impossible. Joan grasped this much more viscerally than I did. Having by age 27 lost both her parents and been diagnosed with lupus, she had a precocious awareness of mortality.
I would continue to trek to Indian Wells, not with Joan, but always with her in my heart, including daily conversations from the tournament – at least through 2010. That was the year Joan died, infections and lupus taking her life.
Have I recovered from the loss of a love I’d had for 28 years? To use a word Segura often employed when asked about a player’s likely weakness, questionable. But unquestionably, I remain indebted to Joan for her love and faith. It would have been easier for us to agree I should stay in the PR agency world and safely earn the revenue that would keep us solvent. Call that a version of staying on the baseline.
But instead, Joan supported my pursuit of a personal dream, that tennis was the world I was meant to inhabit and that to do so I’d need to stay true to my net-rushing style. And so today, I head once again to the desert, to see the present, envision the future and also reflect on the past, back 25 years and yet another moment when my beloved helped me sharpen my teeth.
Last month marked the publication of Joel Drucker’s new book, “Don’t Bet on It,” a portrait of his 28-year romance that incorporates humor, lupus, faith, death – and even a tennis subplot that surfaces in the book’s title.